Notoriety And The Good Uknown
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
ONE of the principal puerilities of the times is the love of publicity. To make themselves known, and to come forth from obscurity—some are so devoured by this desire that they may justly be said to be attacked by the itch for notoriety. In their eyes obscurity is the greatest of ignominies ; and so they do everything to cause themselves to be remarked. They consider themselves in their unknown quality as lost beings, to be compared to the wrecks that one night of tempest has thrown on some desert rock, and who resort to clamors, to detonations, to fire, and all imaginable signals to let people know they are there. Not content with setting off torpedoes, and innocent fuses, to make them-selves known at any price, they have descended quite to baseness and quite to crime. The incendiary, Erostrate, has made numerous disciples. How many in these times have become celebrated for having destroyed something of marked value, demolished, or tried to demolish, an illustrious reputation, or show their passage, in fact, by a scandal, a wickedness, of some resounding barbarity.
This craze for notoriety is nursed not only among cracked heads, or in the doubtful financial world—among charlatans and rascals of all ranks, but it is spread over all the domains of the spiritual and material life. Politics, literature, science even, and, most shocking of all, charity and religion, have been infested by this desire for notoriety. They blow trumpets about their good works, and to convert souls they have imagined noisy "practices. Following the savages, the fever of noise has gained the ordinarily silent retreats, troubled the generally well-poised minds, and vitiated, in a large measure, the activity for good. The abuse of showing everything, or more properly of spreading everything out ; the growing incapacity of appreciating that which remains hidden, and the habit of measuring the value of things by the noise they make, has ended by altering the most serious judgments, and one asks oneself at times if society will not end by transforming itself into one vast fair where each one beats his drum in front of his booth.
One quits the intolerable cacophony and dust of these exhibitions willingly, to go and breathe freely in some lonely valley where one is surprised to find how limpid the brook is, how discreet the forest, and how agreeable the solitude. Thank God, there are still some asylums left inviolate. However formidable the noise may be, however deafening is the mixture of mingled shrill voices, all that can reach no farther than a certain limit, and then it appeases itself and dies out. The domain of silence is vaster than that of noise, and in that lies our consolation.
Let us step on the threshold of that infinite world where dwells the unknown good, the silent labor. We are, at the first view, under the charm that we feel when we first see the immaculate snow where no foot has trod, the flowers of the solitary places, and lost paths which seem to go toward the limitless horizon.
The world is made thus, that the springs of work, the most active agents, are everywhere hidden. Nature puts a sort of coquetry in thus masking her works. One must take pains to watch them, and plan to surprise her, if one desires to learn other things than results, and penetrate the secrets of her laboratories. It is the same in human society : the forces which are working for good remain invisible, and are the same in every one of our lives, for what we have of the best is not communicable, and is buried in our profoundest depths. The more energetic these sentiments are, en-twined even with the very roots of our nature, the less they seek ostentation ; they believe they would be profaning themselves in exposing them to the clear light of day. There is a secret and inexpressible joy in possessing in oneself a deep inwardness which God alone knows, and from whose impulsion we live, and draw the spontaneity, and the daily renewal of our courage and the most powerful motives of outward action. When this intimate life loses its intensity, when man neglects it to care for the surface, he loses in value all that he gains in appearance. By a sad fatality it also happens that often we are of less value, in the same measure as we are more admired. And we remain convinced that that which is best in the world is that which we do not know, for only those know it who possess it. If they told it they would at the same time deprive it of its perfume.
Some passionate lovers of nature love above all in her the farthest corners, in the depths of the forest, in the crevices of the ravines, everywhere where the first comer is not permitted to contemplate her. They would remain there days, forgetful of time and life, in watching a bird build her nest or raise her brood, in these inviolate solitudes, or in watching some wild animal at its graceful play. It is thus that one should seek the good in himself ; there, where there is no constraint, no studied position, no gallery of any sort, but the simple fact of a life which consists of a wish to be that which it is good that he should be without troubling himself about anything else.
Permit me to place here a few observations taken from real life. Being anonymous they cannot be considered as indiscretions.
There is in my country, Alsace, on one solitary road, whose interminable ribbon prolongs itself through the forests of the Vosges, a stone-breaker whom I have seen at his work for thirty years. The first time I saw him I, a young scholar, had started for the great city, and my heart was full. The sight of that man did me good, for he was humming a song the while he was breaking the stones. We exchanged a few words, and at the end he said:
"My boy, good courage and good luck !"
Since then I have often passed and repassed over that road in the most diverse circumstances, painful and happy. The scholar made his way; the breaker of stones remains what he was. He has taken a few more precautions against the changes of the seasons, a straw matting protects his back, and his felt hat seems to be drawn further forward on his brow to better spare his head. But the forest sends back ever the echo of his valiant hammer. How many storms, poor old man, have fallen over his back, how many contrary destinies on his life, his family, his country! He continues to break his stones, and whether I come or go I find him beside the road, smiling in spite of his age and wrinkles, having, above all on rainy days, those simple words of a good man which have such an effect when they are scanned in breaking stones. It would be absolutely impossible to express the emotion that the sight of that simple man gives me. And certainly, he does not imagine it. I know of no spectacle more comforting, but at the same time more severe for the vanity fermenting in our hearts, than this meeting with an obscure toiler who does his work as the oak grows or as the good God causes the sun to rise, regardless of who sees him.
I have known many old teachers, men and women, who have passed their lives at a task always the same; to instil the rudiments of human knowledge into heads sometimes harder than stone. They have worked with all their hearts, the whole length of a painful career, where the attention of men held little place. When they lie down in their unknown graves, no one will remember them but a few humble ones like themselves. But their recompense is in their love. None is grander than these unknown ones.
How many obscure virtues will those who know how to seek not discover in a certain class of people whom they have often ridiculed, not thinking that they made themselves guilty at once of cruelty, ingratitude and stupidity. I wish to speak of the old maids. We like to remark anything queer in their costumes, and manners, which is of no consequence in any case. We wish, also, to recall that others, quite personal, have disinterested themselves of everything except their own comfort, and that of some canary, cat or macaw, in which their powers of affection are absorbed ; and certainly, these will not cede in egotism to the most hardened bachelors. But what we are wrong to ignore the most often is the great capacity for sacrifice hidden so modestly in the lives of these simply admirable old maids. Is it nothing, then, to have no home, no love, no future, no personal ambition; to take on oneself that cross of solitude so heavy to bear, above all, when the external solitude is joined to that of the heart; to for-get oneself enough to have no interest in this world save that for old parents, young orphan nephews, the poor, the infirm, out of all the brutal mechanism thrown among the cinders of life? Seen from outside, these almost effaced existences have but little brightness. They excite pity rather than envy. Those who approach them with respect, perceive secret sorrows there, sometimes great sufferings passed, heavy loads under which the all too fragile shoulders bowed; but it is not there that lies the shadow. We should be able to appreciate that richness of heart, that pure goodness, that power of loving, of consoling, of hoping, that gift joyous in itself, that invincible obstinacy in sweetness and in pardoning even those who are unworthy. Poor old maids, how many have you saved from shipwreck, cured of wounds, gathered up of the lost, clothed of the naked, mothered of orphans ; how many beings who would be alone in this world if they did not have you—you who often have no one! I forget. Some One knows you ; it is the great unknown Pity which watches over our lives, and suffers from our misfortunes. Forgotten, like you, and frequently blasphemed, she has confided to you some of her holiest messages, and it is for that, without doubt, that often as you discreetly pass by, we think we feel the touch of the wings of the angels of salvation.
The good hides itself under so many diverse forms that one has often as much difficulty to find it, as to discover the evil deeds hidden in the closet. A Russian physician, who had passed ten years of his life in Siberia, condemned to forced labor for a political offence, liked to recount the traits of generosity, of courage, and humanity which he had observed, not only among many prisoners, but also among the guards of the galleys. At first one would be tempted to say, "Where could good be found there ?" In fact, life there offers you great surprises and disconcerting contrasts. There are brave men, officially recognized as such, settled in their places, I may say almost guaranteed by the government, or by the church, whom none can reproach absolutely at all, unless it might be to say that their hearts are dry and hard, and then one is astonished to meet in certain fallen beings a veritable tenderness and a thirst for devoting themselves to some good work.
Let me be permitted now to speak of the unknown good, done by people whom it seems to be decided to treat with the greatest injustice—the rich people. Some think they have said all they could when they have blasted the "infamous capital." For those, all who possess a great fortune are monsters gorged with the blood of the unfortunate. Others less declamatory, do not confound riches less often with egotism and insensibility. We must do justice to these involuntary or calculated errors. Without doubt there are rich who care for none but themselves, and others who do good only for ostentation. We know the rest. But their inhuman or hypocritical conduct diminishes the value of the good done by others, and which they hide often with so perfect a modesty.
I knew a man to whom had fallen all the sorrows that could blight us in our affections. He had lost a loved wife, buried successively all his children of different ages. But he possessed a large fortune, the result of his labor. Living with extreme simplicity, almost without needs for himself, he sought occasions to do good and to profit by them. How many times he surprised people who were hiding their shameful poverty, how many means he combined to bring solace to miseries, put a little light in dark lives, concoct friendly surprises for his friends, no one can imagine. His pleasure was to do good to others and to enjoy their astonishment when they did not know from whence the action started. He found pleasure in repairing the injustices of fate, and in bringing tears of joy to families pursued by misfortune. He plotted, wove, worked in the dark, with a childish fear of being caught "with his hand in the sack." They never knew the greater part of his exploits until after his death; and how many they will never know !
He was a real sharer. For there are two kinds. Those who aspire to share a part of the goods of another are numerous and vulgar. To be this it suffices to have a good appetite. Those who thirst to divide their own goods with those who have none are rare and precious, for to enter that company of the elect one must have a good and worthy heart, separated from self, sensitive to happiness as to the misery of his fellow-beings. Fortunately, that race of this kind of dividers is not extinct, and I feel an unmixed satisfaction in rendering them an homage which they do not reclaim.
You will excuse me for insisting. It does one so much good to relieve oneself of the bile of so many infamies, of so many calumnies, of so much pessimism, so much charlatanism, in reposing one's eyes on something more beautiful, in breathing the perfume of those hidden corners where simple kindness blossoms. A lady, a stranger not accustomed, doubtless, to Parisian life, told me once of the horror with which the spectacle offered to her eyes inspired her, the abominable posters, the vile newspapers, those women with dyed hair, that crowd which crushes each other at the races, at the cafe concerts, in gambling, in corruption; all that flood of superficial and worldly life. She did not pronounce the word Babylon, but it was doubtless out of pity for one of the inhabitants of that city of perdition. "Alas! madame ; yes, these are sad things, but you have not seen all." "God forbid !" she replied. "No, I wish instead that you could see all, for if there are undersides very ugly, there are others very comforting. And hold, change only the locality, or observe at other hours. Give yourself the spectacle of Paris in the early morning. It will furnish you many elements to correct your impressions of Paris at night. Go and see, among the many other laborers, the brave street sweepers, who come forth when the bacchanalians and the gutter-snipes go to bed. You will see the bodies of the caryatides, beneath their rags—their austere faces. How seriously they sweep up the remains of the nightly feasts ! One might call them prophets on the threshold of Belshazzar. There are women among them, and many old men. When it is cold they blow on their fingers and recommence to sweep. And it is thus every day. They also are inhabitants of Paris. Go afterward to the environs, in the studios, and, above all, where the patron works like his employee. See the army of workers march to their toil. How valiant are those young girls who come gaily down from their distant part of the city toward the stores and offices ! Then, visit the homes, where you will find the women of the people at their work. The salary is modest, the dwelling narrow, children numerous, and often the husband is brutal. Make a collection of the biographies of these poor people, budgets of their little housekeeping, look a long time and mark them well.
"Then go and see the students. Those whom you have seen creating scandal in the streets are many, but the number of those who work are legion. Only, they remain indoors, and no one knows them. If you only knew how they toil to fill themselves with learning in the Latin Quarter! You have seen the newspapers filled with the noises which a certain youth makes, which calls itself studious. The papers tell of those who break windows, but why do they never mention those who sit up late over the problems of science or history? That would not interest the public. Hold t When, as sometimes happens one among them, a medical student dies a victim to professional duty, they mention it in two lines in the public sheets. A row among drunken ones takes up half a column. The smallest details are fixed and made much of. It lacks only the portrait of the hero, and not always.
"I should never finish, if I would show you all you should go to see, to have seen all. You should make the tour of every phase of society, rich and poor, savants and the ignorant. And then, certainly, you would not judge so severely. Paris is a world, and, the same as in the world in general, goodness hides itself, while evil spreads itself. When one looks at the surface, one wonders how it can be that there are so many good-for-nothings. When one has gone to the bottom, one is astonished, on the contrary, that in that tempestuous obscure, and sometimes horrible life, there can hold so many virtues."
But why should I dwell upon these things? It is not to give notoriety to those who hold it in horror. It is not thus that I should be understood. Here is my object: to render attentive to the unknown good, and, above all, cause it to be loved and practiced. That man is lost who pleases himself only with that which shines and strikes the eyes ; first, because he exposes himself to see evil everywhere, and after, because he accustoms himself to see in good only that which forces his eyes, and he easily succumbs to the temptation of living for appearance. Not only must we re-sign ourselves to obscurity, but we must love it, if we would not slowly slide into the rank of the figurantes in a theater who keep up their manner only under the eyes of the audience, and drop to their natural expression in the wings, forgetting the restraint imposed upon them while in front. We are there in the presence of one of the elements essential to the moral life. And what we say is true not only for those whom they call the humble ones, and whose destiny is to never be noticed, but others. This is still true, and much more so for the first roles. If you would not be a brilliant nonentity, dressed in many variegated colors and decked with gold lace, but who has nothing in his stomach, you must fill your first place in the spirit of simplicity of the most obscure of your collaborators. Whosoever values nothing save during the hours of parade, values less than nothing. Have we the perilous honor of being in sight and marching in the first rank, then let us maintain with still greater care the interior sanctuary of unknown good in our lives. Let us give the edifice, whose facade our fellow-beings see, a solid foundation of simplicity, of humble fidelity. And then, let us re-main near to strangers by sympathy, and by gratitude.
It is to those that we owe all, is it not? I take as witness all those who have had in the human domain the strengthening experience the hidden stones in the soil have in sustaining the whole edifice. All those who come to have a certain recognized and public value owe it to some humble spiritual ancestor, to a few for-gotten inspirers. A small number of good beings, among whom there are often peasants, women, those who have been conquered by existence, parents as modest as venerated, personify for us the finest and most noble life. Their example inspires and sustains us. Their remembrance lives forever inseparable from our hearthstones. We see them in their hours of sorrow, courageous and tranquil, and our loads seem lighter. They stand close around us an invisible and loved phalanx which hinders us from. stumbling and losing step in battle, and every day it proves to us that the treasure of humanity is the good that the world does not know.